Friday 18 October 2019

Noonan accused of 'over-ruling' minister on €100 Irish Water grant

Finance Minister Michael Noonan has been rounded on by the Labour Party after it emerged that he blocked a proposal to link the €100 Water Conservation Grant to the payment of Irish
Water bills
Finance Minister Michael Noonan has been rounded on by the Labour Party after it emerged that he blocked a proposal to link the €100 Water Conservation Grant to the payment of Irish Water bills

Niall O'Connor

The Labour Party has rounded on Finance Minister Michael Noonan after it emerged that he blocked a proposal to link the €100 Water Conservation Grant to the payment of Irish Water bills.

The Irish Independent understands that Mr Noonan "over-ruled" Environment Minister Alan Kelly's plans to limit the provision of the €100 grant to households who settle their bills, as well as homes with private wells, septic tanks and those on group water schemes.

Mr Kelly tabled the proposal during a meeting of the Government's Economic Management Council (EMC) last November.However, Mr Noonan and Department of Finance officials argued that such a move could be in breach of State rules.

It is understood that the concern at the time centred around the looming Eurostat Market Corporation Test, which the Government subsequently failed anyway.

The grant instead was designed on the principle of "universality" and it is therefore due to be paid to any household that registered with Irish Water by June 30 - regardless of whether they have paid their bills.

A view has hardened within Fine Gael in recent weeks that the payment of the grant to customers who refuse to pay their bills is deeply unjust.

But Labour has reacted angrily to alleged Fine Gael "leaks" that changes to the system are on the cards. In a statement yesterday, Mr Kelly said there were no proposals to bring such changes to Cabinet.

The news has come as an embarrassment for Fine Gael after party figures had demanded that the grant be linked to the payment of bills - just months after the proposal had been shot down by their most senior Cabinet minister and his officials.

A senior Labour source accused Fine Gael of causing "confusion" for the public and said that Enda Kenny's party was to blame for the latest Irish Water controversy.

"The fact is Alan Kelly pushed for this measure prior to the unveiling of the grant, but he was overruled by Noonan. So Fine Gael would want to look towards Noonan for an explanation," the source said.

It is now expected that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Joan Burton will intervene to defuse the latest set of tensions between the coalition partners over Irish Water.

While figures within both parties last night said linking the grant to bill payment could not be ruled out in the future, it is a proposal that would involve a significant body of work.

Among the difficulties is the fact that thousands of households do not have to pay water bills directly to Irish Water because they have private wells, septic tanks or are on group water schemes.

Therefore, any attempt to limit payment of the €100 grant could impact negatively on this cohort, most of whom are rural-based.

But the latest controversy surrounding Irish Water has sparked a furious response within the Labour Party.

One minister said Mr Noonan has "egg on his face" now that his own party is pushing for changes that he and his officials over-ruled several months ago.

"Here we are once again - another water fiasco that is not of our doing," the source said.

Mr Noonan was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Longford/Westmeath TD Willie Penrose accused Fine Gael of trying to "make up policy on the hoof".

"The fact is there was an attempt many months ago to implement this policy objective and it wasn't a Labour minister who blocked it. Fine Gael should realise it has an obligation to act cohesively with the Labour Party, rather than simply causing confusion," he told the Irish Independent.

Labour Chief Whip Emmet Stagg has said he believes "games are being played by spin doctors" which he said are "unhelpful".

Galway senator Lorraine Higgins accused Fine Gael of "opportunistic behaviour", adding: "They can't have jam on both sides of their bread."

Her Seanad colleague John Gilroy said Fine Gael was "playing into the grips of silly season" and should "desist from adding to the uncertainty" surrounding the public utility.

But Fianna Fáil Environment spokesperson Barry Cowen described the latest controversy as a "total farce".

"Sure it's a joke and a laugh and it just has to be brought to a conclusion," he said.

Sinn Féin TD for Dublin North West Dessie Ellis said the Government is "at sixes and sevens" over the grant scheme.

Irish Independent

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